Allan Jones Sunday 19th February 2023
I’ve been a minister of the PCANZ for fifty years. From time-to-time people have asked me: “So what do you believe?” Or, ”What is your theology?” If these questions are asked in a way that indicates a reply is worth offering, I have often said: “I’m a Christian atheist.” That usually leads to some discussion.
So, what is a Christian atheist? A theist is a person who believes in a God who created and intervenes in the universe. (Shorter OED). An atheist (non-theist) is a person who does not believe in gods.
That’s the negative definition. But there is a positive definition of atheism too. Like millions of people, I
have no belief in gods. But there are some things I believe in confidently, and which shape my life. And for me it all starts with something unavoidable, that is right in front of us. We experience this with our senses, it’s what enables and limits us. I’m talking about reality, the universe, nature.
We humans are part of nature and have lived with nature from the beginning. We have tried to
understand, use and manipulate nature. And from the earliest times, humans have thought that behind
nature were forces, spirits, gods and goddesses that are like us, but greater. And just maybe, if we pray,
sacrifice or plead, these gods will make our lives easier, less painful, richer. From the first recorded history,
there is evidence of belief in gods.
These gods are not part of nature. They are constructions, invented to explain and try to manipulate
nature. And there are thousands of them, with thousands of different names, worshipped and implored
down through the centuries. They exist because they seem to explain nature, and because powerful self-
interested people act as their agents. This raises the obvious question: If these gods are in any way real,
which is the true one?
That is the major theme of the Hebrew testament. If you read the so-called ten commandments, the first
11 verses are about the Yahweh god. The people are to worship no other god. They are not to make
images. They are not to use Yahweh’s name in vain. They are to observe the Sabbath to respect Yahweh.
Then at the end come six short commandments about all the rest of social and civil life: don’t murder,
commit adultery, steal, lie or covet.
Why this emphasis on Yahweh? Because the Hebrews lived in a theologically competitive world. There
were many gods around. Even in the Psalms, written for the worship of Yahweh, there are many verses like
this: ‘For the LORD is a mighty god, and a mighty king over all the gods’. (Ps 95:3) You see? One among
many, in competition. An oddity of translation conceals this: wherever you see ‘the LORD’ in capitals, it’s a
translation of the proper name of Israel’s god, Yahweh. They thought the name too holy to speak or even
write. But in fact Yahweh is one of the gods, and one who was up against the many other local gods. At a
certain point in history, one of these was named Baal.
The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal illustrates well the problem with all theism. King Ahab is a
permissive king. He allows a little diversity in his superstition. And the religion of Baal is attractive in some
ways, and possibly beneficial to the nation. Ahab is, well before his time, a follower of Blaise Pascal, who in
the 17th century CE argued that you never can tell if gods are real or not, but never mind, going along with belief might pay off in the long run. There are folk who share that view today.
Elijah, on the other hand, is a hard-liner. He follows Yahweh and justifies his status as a prophet by
performing the odd miracle. A widow is given a bowl of flour and a jar of oil that never run out. Later the
same widow’s son dies, and Elijah resuscitates him. During a drought, Elijah decides to take on the prophets of Baal, and you heard the incredible story of the fire from Yahweh that ignited the wet wood. Believe that if you can. I don’t. What I think really happened is that Elijah was able to enlist enough support from enough people to take control. Then comes the climax of the story: Elijah and his supporters take the prophets of Baal down to the river Kishon and kill them all. All 450 of them! Defenseless priests of a rival god. Surely that’s murder? Didn’t the commandment say “You shall not kill”? No, Elijah thinks, it’s just establishing the supremacy of my god, the true one.
We live in a beautiful world, an awe-inspiring universe, and nature is amazing, and also harsh. What has
theism of Elijah’s sort done to make life better? Theism has a terrible record of intolerance of difference.
Think of the Crusades. Think of how Christians have treated Jews. Think of the Inquisition. I can’t believe in
an intolerant and vengeful god who condones violence.
But another reason is more a question of logic. If you believe in one god who created and intervenes in the universe, and is loving and all-powerful, there is a big problem. How come bad things happen to good people? There is no sensible answer to that question. Such a god should not allow it. The book of Job explores this problem, and has no answer, except that Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and told him he was not competent to question god. This problem of evil l is a massive problem for belief in the god most Christians would like to believe in.
There are some truly awful things about theism, but there are also some good things. Amongst all the
threats and capricious demands of Yahweh in the books of the Law, there are also commands about human decency. Leave some of the crop for the poor. Welcome a stranger. Don’t cheat people. Don’t favour the rich. Don’t slander another. Don’t bear grudges. Do what is just, show constant love, walk humbly. The Law and the prophets are full of these instructions. Why are they important? Because we cannot live well without them. They make civil society possible. We need some values to be fully human.
And nature is beautiful and terrible but it has no values. That has a good side. When my wife died, we
blamed no-one and no thing and no god. It was nature. But the lack of values and a compass in nature
demands something more to live by. It needs some values. That’s why I’m a christian atheist.
Todays’ NT reading is part of the sermon on the Mount. This collection of Jesus’ teachings runs through
Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7, altogether 111 verses, and they are a rich core of insight and surprising up-
ending of values. Not ‘an eye for an eye’, but forgiveness and reconciliation. Someone takes your shirt –
give them your coat too. Go a second mile. Give, and lend. Love not just friends, but enemies!
There’s considerable debate about whether Jesus was a theist or not. Perhaps he was. But he seems far less interested in god than in how to live. In today’s reading Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may become children of your father in heaven”. He’s saying, this way of living will make you a child of god. A child of god is as good as a god. So that’s what a god is, someone who loves enemies. Then he says: For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike and gives rain to those who do good and those who do evil. Did you hear that, Elijah? That’s not theism, it sounds like the idea that god is nature, and nature is god. What I am saying is that Jesus had his serious reservations about theism.
This is just one example of Jesus’ profound insight into what makes good life possible. How wonderful it is that his friends recorded so much of it. What a shame that much got lost or forgotten. What a tragedy that the church down through the centuries has been not much interested in Jesus’ teaching, and far more interested in his unfortunate but inevitable death, and in turning him into a god. If he’d known, he would have wept.
I expect there are a few here who would agree with my outrageous position. There will be others who want to keep using the word ‘god’, but in a careful and circumspect way, not meaning a being who created and intervenes in the universe. Pantheism is the resort of many intelligent liberals, a belief that Richard Dawkins called ‘God is just the great outdoors’. And some will see things oppositely to me, and continue to trust in a god they have found to be faithful and true. Diversity is good. I suspect Jesus would have welcomed all of us into his circle, along with the fishermen and traitor and tax-collectors and prostitutes. All of us precious, all of us trying, all of us imperfect – but loved. And with the capacity to love others. Even enemies.